Features - News Feature
FEBRUARY 1, 1996
Formula 1 in the 21st century
BY JOE SAWARD
The major problem for motor racing will be the increase in competition on the television from other sports and leisure activities. Motor racing will have to fight for air time with all manner of strange activities: naked female mud wrestling; religious broadcasting; ski jumping and, of course, with other Sunday afternoon activities such as watching old movies after a large satisfying Sunday lunch.
By then we will have interactive television so that sitting on the sofa one will be able to decide what you want to watch. You might be feeling like an old movie and so you will call up "Gone with the Wind". You might want to watch Neil Armstrong taking man's first step on the moon in 1969 or, if you are a race fan, you might get a sudden urge to see Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve fighting it out for second place at Dijon in 1979. All these things will be available at the touch of a few buttons.
The nice thing is that on a busy sporting Sunday in the summer months you will not be restricted to what a broadcaster thinks you want to watch - because they will be providing a choice of programmes. There will be no more sudden and infuriating switches from an exciting Grand Prix battle to a dull tennis match. The problem is that even with a vast number of channels, sports will only survive if they are popular - which means that they make money for the broadcasters.
In the battle to produce thrilling viewing, Formula 1 motor racing starts with a number of advantages over the opposition. There is always something happening somewhere in the field in an F1 race. At the moment one is restricted to what the director thinks is the most interesting part of the race. In the future there will be two, three or four directors each following a different section of the field. In addition there will be permanent in-car footage from all the leading cars so that if you want to ride in-car with Michael Schumacher all the way to the flag, you will be able to. You might prefer to watch the battle for sixth place between your favorite British drivers. You will also be able to connect up to the information services currently available only at the circuits with messages flashing up on the screen: "Car 4 spins at Turn 3" will become part of the broadcast. For the real fans there will be detailed lap-by-lap timings showing you who is catching who. Or you might like to call up video biographies of the stars. F1 coverage will become multi-layered. Others sports are more limited in what they can do. A 100-metre sprint race can only be viewed from a few different angles - and is over in less than 10 seconds.
The pressure, however, will be on F1 to improve the show. Today the teams argue over whether F1 should be a question of technology or whether it should be a show business formula - like American NASCAR stock car racing - but this dispute will fade away. It will simply become a question of making F1 as spectacular as possible. There is no future in the International Automobile Federation (FIA) constantly trying to restrict the cars so that they can run in safety on the existing circuits. Already engineers are complaining that the safety restrictions mean that they must design cars which are only good in slow-speed corners. There are not fast corners left for these to be important.
No matter how much safety work is done, there will still be accidents in F1 - and some will result in injury or death. The FIA's greatest fear is that one of these will involve spectators and will result in everyone blaming the FIA for not making the tracks safe enough. It is, therefore, inevitable that one day an FIA committee will propose a completely new approach to the problems of safety which are being encountered today. They will argue that TV revenue has given the governing body more money than it can use and that it would be a much better idea if the FIA was to invest some of this money in the purchase of thousands of acres of useless and cheap land in a variety of remote areas around the world. This would enable them to build a new generation of racing circuit - away from problems of environmentalists and noise restrictions - where they could have limitless run-off areas and no spectators. Instead of the traditional circuits Cancer".
The European Commission - which initiates European Union policy - proposed an EU-wide ban but anti-tobacco campaigners have been unable to get the 54% vote they need for the proposals to be confirmed by the Council of Ministers: Britain, Denmark, Greece, Germany and Holland all voting against the idea.
Interestingly, of these, Britain, Germany and Holland all have their own voluntary agreements between the governments and the tobacco companies rather than government bans.
This is a good compromise but in other countries the tobacco companies have not been given the choice. The governments have simply banned advertising and sponsorship while allowing the products to continue to be sold. The fact is that governments will not ban tobacco sales because they are either protecting a government monopoly or because taxation on cigarettes provides them with a useful amount of income. Tobacco also keeps large numbers of people in work - even when the farms are not profitable. In addition any ban would need to be policed and that would be expensive because cigarette smuggling (duty-dodging is already a problem) would boom, providing criminal organizations with the chance to build vast new empires as happened during Prohibition in America between 1919 and 1933 when campaigners managed to get alcohol banned.
The tobacco problem may seem to be a problem for Grand Prix racing but F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has been very intelligent and has been planning ways in which to replace the tobacco money in F1. Ecclestone - who takes a healthy share of all profits in F1 - has promised more money for the teams from television revenues; he is working on expanding currently haphazard F1 merchandising - a potentially huge source of income when one considers what has happened in American sports and in British football. In addition he has invested in technology - although he has yet to admit he is doing it - to introduce "virtual advertising", a system which means that images are electronically-altered so that TV viewers in different countries will see different things. Thus a green advertising hoarding in France will appear on American TV as an advertisement for Marlboro, or in Italy as a billboard for FIAT. Virtual advertising has already been used successfully in baseball in the United States.
In fact, F1 is not really under massive threat because if the tobacco companies withdraw there are enough big high-profile companies willing to invest because F1 is such an effective means of promotion.
Experience has shown that the real damage of tobacco bans is at grassroots level, notably in single seater racing such as Formula Ford 1600, Formula 3 and Formula 3000. Most of the current generation of F1 drivers are in F1 today because they were helped there by a tobacco company.
For the French motor racing industry the ban on tobacco advertising - known as Evin's Law, after Health Minister Claude Evin - was devastating. The law was passed by the French Senate in October 1990 to begin in January 1993. Emboldened by the success of the legislation French anti-tobacco campaigners nearly forced the cancellation of the French GP in 1992 when the Comite Nationale Contre le Tabagisme applied to a liberal court in Quimper, Brittany, seeking a ban on the transmission of tobacco images on static objects at the French GP. The court decided that the broadcaster TF1 would have to pay ú1000 for every tobacco image shown on television. TF1 said it would not broadcast the race in France and it was only after two days of negotiations. The nature of the sport will change entirely. Some will complain that there is too much technology but the motor racing will develop just as aerial warfare once did. The drivers will have machines capable of doing a lot of their work for them and will thus be given more time to think about tactics. The racing will be enormously spectacular.
The pace of development will be as never before as teams investigate every new technological avenue. They will have to create new departments for each new exotic science which the sport stumbles upon. Research into metal matrix composites will accelerate as engineers figure out how to tame extraordinarily light but unstable metals - such as lithium. Ceramic engine parts will offer enormous advantages over metals. They are light, strong and enormously heat resistant. They can even be used to harness heat for use elsewhere in a car. The problem is that they are difficult to shape and are prone to sudden stress failures. Research into these will be never-ending but this will be so expensive that there will have to be special technical partnership between the teams and specialist aerospace companies.
Computer technology, however, will help to bring down costs because windtunnels will cease to be as important as they are today. At the moment windtunnelling is still a fairly inaccurate science, particularly in regard to the flow of air between the bottom of the cars and the ground. As technology develops and data is gathered aerodynamic research will be done with computer models. This will be faster and cheaper. Similarly, data will be used to make computer models to test all new parts for cars. The need to actually go testing will be reduced.
Nonetheless the big F1 teams will grow to have perhaps 500 people working towards building the cars. A quarter of these will be involved not in research and development or production but in finding the money necessary to fund these enormous organizations. Sponsorship will change completely.
Marketing departments at each team will work on ideas to make money for their clients. They will go to companies not to ask for sponsorship but rather to explain that if a company is willing to invest they will make money for the investor using their cross-marketing techniques. A team will raise money by offering free use of its driver's image to a supermarket chain if it agrees to stock certain products. Such deals can be worth millions to the supermarket chains and to the suppliers and they will be happy to give the team a small percentage of that money to go racing. The signage on the car will be little more than an incentive to make the deal work.
Teams will also make huge sums of money from merchandising products relating to their sport. The teams will all get together to establish a chain of shops of their own in big cities all around the world. Through this network they will sell all their old equipment - wings, nose boxes, helmets, driving suits and so on. They will offer autographed photographs of not only the drivers but the team bosses - who will become media personalities in their own right. They will also sell team gear so that customers can walk into one of the stores and buy a Ferrari jacket and a pair of Williams training shoes. All around the world you will see people wearing the clothing of their favor racing teams. Street gangs in the USA may one day use McLaren gear as their uniforms...
The FIA will also make a lot more money thanks to the arrival of "virtual reality advertising". This means that the billboards around the tracks will be used to display different commercial messages in different countries. When a car hurtles down a straight the television viewers in India will see a large Marlboro sign in the background; viewers in France - where tobacco advertising is banned - will see an advert for Perrier mineral water, while TV spectators in China will see advertising for the Ford Motor Company.
With TV coverage going out to 200 countries around the world, there is the potential for each advertising hoarding to be sold to 200 different sponsors. At the race tracks the billboards will be empty - painted blue - the rest of this marketing miracle will be achieved with electronics.
The teams and the FIA will be working hard to make the same thing possible with moving objects - the cars - so that each team will be able to sell their advertising space 200 times over. If the technology is developed to make that happen, F1 marketing departments may have to grow even bigger than the technical teams - and that will mean that the top drivers will be able to command salaries which today's racers can only dream of earning.
Perhaps $50 million a year for the World Champion...